From the time of his return from England, Sankey was too ill to continue in gospel work, other than to sing a few solos here and there. The years of constant singing had at last worn him out, confining him to his Brooklyn home, a semi-invalid. All offers for evangelistic campaigns, regardless of how large or alluring, had to be turned down.
Forced to stay at home, he spent much of his time writing letters to his friends and working on his autobiography and collection of hymn stories. There were many visitors, however, who, knowing his loneliness, often dropped in to help pass the time. Among those who took time out to make life more pleasant for him was his old friend Fanny Crosby. He always looked forward to her coming, and she mentions in the story of her life how once when she entered his door she heard him say, "Fanny Crosby is in the house; I hear her laugh."
Later, after one of these visits, he sent her the following letter:
Dear Fanny, co-laborer in the blessed service of sacred SONG FOR SO MANY YEARS:
I wish that when you get to heaven (as you may before I will) that you will watch for me at the pearly gate at the eastern side of the city; and when I get there I'll take you by the hand and lead you along the golden street, up to the throne of God, and there we'll stand before the Lamb, and say to Him: "And now we see Thee face to face, saved by Thy matchless, boundless grace, and we are satisfied."
Yours, till the day dawn and the shadows flee away,
Ira D. Sankey.
Sankey worked hard on his book. In 1901, when it was nearly finished, he and his wife paid a visit to their friend, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, at the Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Thinking he would have a quiet place in which to write, he took his manuscript along, hoping to complete it. But before the visit was over the sanitarium was suddenly burned to the ground, and the Sankeys lost nearly all their possessions, including the manuscript. The loss of all this work, which had taken years to put together, was very great, and for a while Sankey could not think of sitting down and writing the book all over again. But when his friends insisted, he forced himself to the desk and rewrote from memory.
In January of 1903 Sankey had an attack of congestive glaucoma, a malady which often causes blindness. His physician, Dr. Richard Kalish, told him that his eyesight was threatened and advised an operation. The operation was performed, but although it eased the pain, it did not stop the progress of the disease, which finally wasted the optic nerve, causing him to lose his sight.
The doctor, however, thought that his blindness was not permanent; that a complete rest might at least partially restore his eyesight. Sankey moved out into the country, refused to see the public, and took a complete rest. But nothing happened. It then became apparent that his blindness was permanent. This discovery at first put him in a deep state of melancholy, but after a few weeks he became reconciled to his condition and some of his old sunny disposition returned.
At first it was quite impossible for him to play on the organ or to sing because of the memories that always came to him. But with time this all changed, and he spent much of his time playing the hymns that had made him famous and relating stories to his many friends who came to visit. Mrs. Sankey took good care of him, and his life was not nearly so unpleasant as he had anticipated.
One ray of light in these dark days was the publication of his book, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, in 1906. The book was printed in a substantial binding, had good reviews, and sold exceptionally well. Sankey took great pleasure in sending autographed copies to his friends. And since most of the book was about the hymns rather than himself, it did not hurt his conscience!
The following year, feeling he was near his end, he wrote a letter to the New Castle (Pennsylvania) Y.M.C.A. in which he expressed his belief in God, the belief that had carried him through so many hard tests during his long years in evangelistic work. One can imagine the thoughts that raced through his mind as he dictated what he knew to be probably his last letter to his Y.M.C.A. friends in New Castle:
I have great joy in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. These three are one, and his name is Love.
I believe that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
I believe in Him who said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life."
I believe in the Son of God with all my soul, might, mind, and strength, and am therefore saved by the word of One that cannot lie. I have only a little longer weary tossing on the billows' foam, only a little longer of earthly darkness, and then the sunshine of the Father's throne. So sure am I of meeting in heaven those of my friends who are following the Lamb, that I send them this final message that God is love. Good night, Good night.
Ira D. Sankey
George C. Stebbins often dropped over to see him, and the two had many experiences to share with one another. Sankey, however, had his heart set on going home. He did not want to get well. He had heard the call from heaven and longed to go upward. "George," he used to say to his friend, "you will find me on Spurgeon Street, when you get up there."
Then, on August 14, 1908, Sankey's wish was fulfilled. He went to be with his Maker. At the time of his death he was only sixty-eight years of age, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that most of his time had been given to the Master.
The funeral services were conducted in Theodore Cuyler's church. Dr. Charles E. Locke, of Brooklyn, preached the sermon. At the conclusion of the address the church quartet sang "The Ninety and Nine," "There'll Be No Dark Valley," and "Sleep On, Beloved." These were Sankey's favorite songs. He was dead, and yet they were sung. And so it is that Sankey still sings. And we know that he will continue to sing until the very end of time.
From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.